The 15 Best Films Of The 1950s

As moviegoers continued to recover from World War II, cinema of the 1950s was defined by both this trauma and a steadfast refusal to bury it down deep. We see in this decade a continuation of film noir, which explored dark, seedy themes while facing fewer restrictions from censorship boards than had been in place throughout the late 1930s and 1940s. But there's also an interesting engagement with the concept of conformity, especially among U.S. filmmakers, for whom the exodus to the suburbs and post-war prosperity created the perfect setting for both apple pie Americana and the tensions that lurked beneath the surface. 

There's also a deep vein of anxiety that informs filmmaking throughout the entire decade, as the Cold War threatened to ignite and atomic fears felt more and more warranted. Cinema of the 1950s represented these contrasts, as filmmakers around the globe grappled with the reality of a post-war society, one that reflected both the promise of a world finally at peace, but still had to reckon with the scars of the past.

A Man Escaped

There's very little that's showy about "A Man Escaped." There's hardly any dialogue; instead, it relies on simple voiceover narration and a basic story structure that follows a chronological sequence of events. So, the fact that it's utterly gripping and packed full of tension speaks to the quality of craftsmanship on display in the film. It details the experiences of a man who has been imprisoned for being part of the French Resistance, and his slow, methodical efforts to escape. 

He can't afford to rush and risk making a mistake, so he has to exercise patience — and so must we. If this film was directed by anyone less talented than Robert Bresson, it might come across as slow or even dull. But as the prisoner inches ever closer to freedom, "A Man Escaped" brims with such an excruciating sense of anticipation as to keep the audience on the edge of their seat the entire time.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Marilyn Monroe, as we all know by now, gets a bad rap. Continually underestimated as a dumb blonde, "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" is one of the few films that gives her the opportunity to showcase an unexpected wiliness. She plays a showgirl on a cruise with her best friend (played with ride-or-die aplomb by Jane Russell); she is engaged but that doesn't stop her from eyeing up the most eligible bachelor on board. In one of the film's funniest moments, it turns out to be a 10-year-old boy. 

Amidst all the good humor and musical numbers (Russell's "Ain't There Anyone Here For Love?", in which she comically ogles an entire team of Olympic athletes, is a standout to rival "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend"), we see Monroe's survival instincts with rare clarity. She is a woman in a world where her power derives from her looks. That's the hand she's been dealt, so why shouldn't she use it when given a chance? As she says later in the film, with a stunning self-awareness, "I can be smart when it's important, but most men don't like it."

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

The U.S. government might have extolled the sort of white picket fence, all-American values that created disturbingly identical suburban landscapes, but the country's creative forces viewed this emphasis on rigid conformity entirely differently. "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" takes place in a typical American small town, where, one by one, its citizens become ... different. Not in any particular way that would be obvious to outsiders, but their friends and family insist that there's something not right with them, that they've changed somehow. Eventually, we learn that the town is being invaded by an alien force, creating pod people who look exactly like their human counterparts but are devoid of emotion. 

Its heroes strive to inform the rest of the world of the invasion, to give humanity a fighting chance, all while struggling to prevent themselves from meeting the same fate as their friends. "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is a definitive piece of 1950s science fiction, filled with Cold War-era paranoia and the horror of something malicious lurking beneath the placid facade of everyday American suburbs.


For many European filmmakers who spent the late 1940s recovering from economic and social devastation, the 1950s represented the first opportunity they had to process their war experiences on screen. "Kanal" is a Polish film that recreates the last days of the Warsaw Uprising, one of the only instances of armed resistance within Jewish ghettos in Eastern Europe. Fleeing from the German forces, the dwindling band of resistance fighters descends into the bowels of sewers, hoping that they will be able to regroup to survive and fight another day. 

It's a brutal film that captures the not-so-glorious aspects of warfare, providing a sharp contrast from American films of the 1940s, which largely attempted to view combat through a heroic lens. In the book "The Cinema of Andrzej Wajda," Boleslaw Michalek includes a poignant piece of contemporary Polish film criticism from Aleksander Jackiewicz, who wrote, "Maybe 'Kanal' will mark the beginning of the truth being told about history, about ourselves, about a whole generation. Perhaps it will prove to be art as a warning, art of purgation, a triumph of the heroism of life over the heroism of death."

Seven Samurai

One of Akira Kurosawa's crowning cinematic achievements, "Seven Samurai" is an enduring classic paid homage to in films as diverse as "Star Wars" and "A Bug's Life." In 16th-century Japan, a village learns of a group of bandits plotting to attack their town after they've brought in the harvest. Hoping to stave off these invaders, they hire a ragtag band of samurai to protect them. Kurosawa's sensitive, powerful work on "Seven Samurai" manages to be simultaneously thrilling and deeply moving, as the audience is caught up in the plight of both the besieged villagers and the samurais who fight on their behalf.

Many critics from the United States have compared the film to an American Western, and indeed, its plot would be recognizable to American audiences as the inspiration for the 1960 Western "The Magnificent Seven," starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, and Charles Bronson. "Seven Samurai" was been roundly — and deservedly — praised over the years, with Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian writing, "The glorious vigour and strength of this film is presented with such theatrical relish and flair: its energy flashes out of the screen like a sword."

Forbidden Games

"Forbidden Games" opens with a five-year-old girl witnessing her parents die in front of her eyes, then fleeing with her pet dog in her arms, which she doesn't realize is also dead. And remarkably, it doesn't get a whole lot more uplifting from there. This little girl is taken in by a family in the French countryside, where she forms a friendship with their youngest son. So, now there are two children surrounded by death but with limited understanding of what it actually means. They act out the rituals that accompany death, creating a cemetery for small animals and insects, mimicking what they see from the adults around them. 

"Forbidden Games" is a poignant drama that grapples with the trauma of World War II, especially powerful since it comes out of France, where civilians were intimately involved in the combat on the western front. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called the film a "brilliant and devastating drama of the tragic frailties of men, clear and uncorrupted by sentimentality or dogmatism in its candid view of life." It received the Academy Award for best foreign language film, a category that was then designated as a special out-of-competition award.

Sweet Smell of Success

"Sweet Smell of Success" is one of those movies that has such a seedy undercurrent that you almost feel like you need to take a shower after watching it. Tony Curtis stars as Sidney Falco, a press agent who's willing to do pretty much anything to get in with the major players on the New York City newspaper circuit, especially J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster), who has the kind of power and influence that proves irresistible to a parasite like Falco. Hunsecker has a problem, though: His beloved little sister is dating someone he considers to be beneath her, and he is extremely open to playing a little bit of dirty pool in order to break them up. 

Curtis and Lancaster are at their best here, oozing sleaze where they are normally nothing but charming. Although "Sweet Smell of Success" wasn't a box office success – audiences were likely put off by seeing two of their most beloved matinee idols playing so thoroughly against type — it won over critics immediately. Colin Kennedy of Empire Magazine said of the film, "With some of the sharpest dialogue ever cut in Hollywood, only on the most superficial level is this a movie about gossip and publicity. We're talking show business. We're talking America. We're talking cast-iron classic."

Roman Holiday

It's hard not to remember Audrey Hepburn as a Hollywood princess, and "Roman Holiday" is a huge part of the reason why. In it, she plays a European princess who, exhausted by the constant demands on her time, sneaks away from her handlers one night on a state visit to Rome. Along the way, she meets a charming American reporter (Gregory Peck), who balances his growing feelings for the princess with the practical considerations of getting an exclusive scoop on her activities. 

But "Roman Holiday" really has three stars: Hepburn, Peck, and the city of Rome itself. Rarely has it been portrayed on screen in a more romantic light, a fairy tale playground for the characters to gallivant around as each avoids their responsibilities. "Roman Holiday" was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, eventually winning three, including one for Hepburn (her first of five competitive Oscar nominations and only win). It was a massive success upon releasem especially, interestingly enough, in the United Kingdom, where the relationship between Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend sparked a frenzy for this film's brand of royalty-commoner romance.

12 Angry Men

Who needs explosions and endless special effects? At the end of the day, maybe all you need to craft a great film is 12 people stuck in a room together, forced to make a unanimous decision about something on which they fundamentally disagree. Henry Fonda stars in "12 Angry Men," the story of a group of men serving as jurors during a murder trial. After listening to all the evidence, they take a vote: 11 believe that the teenage boy on trial is guilty of killing his father, while only Fonda's character is willing to entertain the possibility of his innocence. 

At the very least, he thinks the boy deserves the courtesy of their deliberation. So they talk. And talk. And talk. Until all of their assumptions and prejudices are exposed. The film is shot almost entirely in one room, giving it a swelteringly claustrophobic atmosphere, the perfect environment for tempers to flare and tensions to rise.

All About Eve

There's nothing scarier than staring your own irrelevance in the face. In "All About Eve," Margot (Bette Davis) is a celebrated actress on Broadway who graciously takes Eve (Anne Baxter), an adoring fan, under her wing. But she quickly begins to suspect that Eve doesn't want a career like Margot's — she wants Margot's actual career, and is willing to manipulate everyone in their lives in order to get it. 

Davis is a tour-de-force, imbuing the bold and confident Margot with a vulnerability and sense of terror surrounding the idea of aging, or worse, being replaced. "All About Eve" was a massive critical success upon its release, with 14 Academy Award nominations, including one for Bette Davis, although she was (ironically) passed over for the best actress award in favor of the 29-year-old Judy Holliday in "Born Yesterday." And if all of that isn't enough, you even get a young Marilyn Monroe in one of her earliest on-screen roles. What's not to love?

Night of the Hunter

There's a malicious, insidious undercurrent that permeates "Night of the Hunter," a perpetual sense of dread embodied by Robert Mitchum's stony-faced killer as he hunts down the children who stand between him and a hidden fortune. But there's also a real tragedy in the making of the film. "Night of the Hunter" was the directorial debut of Charles Laughton, a beloved Oscar-winning actor who poured his heart into the production and is responsible for giving it so many of its defining eerie qualities. When the film wasn't a financial success upon release, Laughton took it hard, and never directed another film. 

It was only years later that audiences discovered how amazing "Night of the Hunter" really was, and for Laughton to be acknowledged for his sensitive, haunting sole directorial effort. Sadly, he died in 1962, before this critical reevaluation. Looking back, it's easy to see that Mitchum creates one of cinema's greatest-ever villains and that Shelley Winters shines as the film's tragic victim. Silent film star Lillian Gish makes an unexpected appearance as its hero. Laughton watched her early filmography in preparation for making "Night of the Hunter" and referred to his decision to cast her as an attempt to recapture the spirit of the silent era, saying, "When I first went to the movies, they sat in their seats straight and leaned forward. Now they slump down, with their heads back, and eat candy and popcorn. I want them to sit up straight again." (via "The Bad & the Beautiful: Hollywood in the Fifties")

Tokyo Story

Watch "Tokyo Story," then take a minute to call your parents. Yasujirō Ozu's melancholy family drama explores the lives of two elderly parents who take a much-anticipated trip to Tokyo to visit their adult children, only to discover that their kids, wrapped up in their own lives, have no time for them. Real "Cat's in the Cradle" stuff. A commentary on the landscape of post-World War II Japan, "Tokyo Story" examines the changing values in Japanese culture. 

Only the widow of their dead son (who has no spouse and children to care for) and their teenage daughter still at home show any interest in their parents, the implication being that a society once intently focused on honoring parents and familial duty has been fractured in its pursuit of rapid modernization and Westernization. In Roger Ebert's review of "Tokyo Story," he commented on the profound emotional resonance it has even on audiences who are culturally detached from Ozu's world, calling it universal and saying, "it is about our families, our natures, our flaws and our clumsy search for love and meaning."

Sunset Boulevard

There's something incredibly sordid and unsettling about "Sunset Boulevard," an ugliness that lurks under the surface, even in the bright California sun. After all, the movie does open with a body floating in a Beverly Hills swimming pool. That would be Joe Gillis (William Holden), a struggling screenwriter who somehow finds himself in the household of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an aging silent film star who lives in terror of being forgotten. He becomes her kept boy, an unsavory arrangement that miraculously managed to get past the censors.

Director Billy Wilder builds in "Sunset Boulevard" a mausoleum of Hollywood's silent era. It's no coincidence that Erich von Stroheim plays Norma's eternally devoted butler, or that an over-the-hill Buster Keaton turns up for Norma's regular bridge games. Visually stunning, deeply sad, and with a fearless lead performance from Swanson, "Sunset Boulevard" is one of the most fascinating movies ever made. Time elegantly summed up the appeal of the film, writing, "Sunset Boulevard is a story of Hollywood, mostly at its worst, brilliantly told by Hollywood at its best."

Some Like It Hot

A classic comedy that is just as funny today as it was when it came out more than 60 years ago, "Some Like It Hot" represents Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon at their most hilarious. A pair of down-on-their-luck Prohibition-Era musicians from Chicago, the two end up in dire straits when they accidentally witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. With the entirety of the Chicago mob on their heels, they make the obvious choice to get out of town, although their escape mechanism is slightly less obvious: they dress up as women and join a girls' band heading down to sunny Florida. 

There, Joe (Curtis) woos the lead singer of their band, the gorgeous Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), while Jerry (Lemmon) fends off the advances of a lascivious millionaire. With more punchlines and clever set pieces in a minute than most films have in their entire runtime, "Some Like It Hot" is a pure, unmitigated delight.

Singin' in the Rain

There are great musicals. There are great comedies. But there's probably not a single film that manages to blend show-stopping musical numbers with a genuinely hilarious sense of humor like "Singin' in the Rain." Gene Kelly stars as Don Lockwood, a silent-film star whose career is about to be upended by the onset of sound. Torn between his love for the beautiful ingenue Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds) and his obligations to his long-time antagonistic co-star Lina Lamont (the criminally underrated Jean Hagen), Don tries to navigate through a Hollywood on the brink of tremendous change with "dignity ... always dignity." 

Nothing is as it seems in "Singin' in the Rain." The glamorous starlet has a comically shrill speaking voice, the swashbuckling matinee idea is a working-class hoofer and former stunt man, and the girl who pops out of a cake at parties longs to perform classical theater. Between the intelligent storytelling, tremendous musical numbers, and possibly the sexiest dance sequence Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse ever committed to celluloid, "Singin' in the Rain" is an undeniable masterpiece.